“Radical” Rob Ford’s Sinking Budget

The City issued a press release this morning touting the budget committee’s decision to approve the 2012 capital and operating budget yesterdays. It’s about what you’d expect:

“It has been Council’s policy since 2004 to use surplus funds to pay for capital costs. We immediately need a good portion of the $154 million surplus to go towards funding buses, streetcars and subways,” said Budget Committee Chair Mike Del Grande (Ward 39, Scarborough-Agincourt). “The City’s efforts in permanently reducing $355 million from its annual expenditures coupled with additional efforts to introduce $700 million in non-debt financing for the capital budget and plan has allowed us to reduce the City’s reliance on one-time surplus revenues from $346 million to $77 million. This is a major breakthrough in bringing the City’s expenses more in line with its revenue.”

“This is simply best practices in financial management,” said City Manager Joe Pennachetti.” With the uncertain global economic outlook, we need to safeguard and restore City reserves to respond to the needs of Toronto residents and withstand the greater occurrence of extreme weather events.”

via City of Toronto on track to build a sustainable, affordable and well-managed city | City of Toronto Press Release.

The whole thing is just an echo of what we heard again and again at yesterday’s budget committee meeting: futile attempts to justify budgetary decisions that are, at this point, almost purely ideological. After spending a year telling us about doom scenarios  — $774 million! 34% property tax increases! Becoming GREECE! — we’ve ended up at a place where the city’s fiscal situation justifies virtually none of the major cuts on the table.

With the surplus figures we’re looking at, the city has enough money to maintain services, keep property taxes low and still set aside significant cash for capital projects and reserve funds. Absent a compelling financial need to cut programs, all we’re left with is the impression that the group of councillors running the city are cutting mostly because they just really like cutting.

Austerity-as-ideology, not austerity-as-necessity.

But don’t take my word for it: just look to the actions of the budget committee yesterday. With the stroke of a pen, they took several items off the chopping block: child nutrition programs, school-based community centres and two pools conveniently located in the wards of executive committee members. There’s no doubt that other programs — like, say, Bellwoods House or the 17% cut to the Toronto Environmental Office — could be reversed the same way.

What’s missing is not the money. It’s the will.

“Radical Conservative Agenda”

Sometime over the holidays, a bunch of left-leaning councillors decided to make use of the phrase “radical conservative” to describe the budget and pretty well everything the mayor does. As cloying and simplistic as this type of repetition can feel to people who actually spend their time nerding about politics, this kind of message discipline isn’t rare and it tends to be more effective than people think. (“Gravy Train” sure worked pretty well.)

Still, let’s ask the question: is there really truth behind the messaging here? Are the mayor and his council supporters behaving in  a way that’s, you know, radical?

Yes and no.

Yes, because there’s definitely an undercurrent where the mayor is cutting simply because he wants to cut. The 2012 budget was seemingly designed with two key mayoral priorities in mind, neither of which seem particularly relevant to people who actually rely on city services: first, that its gross total be less than the previous year’s and, second, that the property tax increase be kept to 2.5%.

That the 2012 budget may be a touch smaller in gross terms than the 2011 budget is totally irrelevant. It’s a stat that only appeals to those who get all excited by right-wing boilerplate. Ford was elected to spend money in a less wasteful way, not to just spend less money. (Anyway: there’s a good chance Ford will lose his ability to claim the gross budget shrunk year-to-year after councillors propose amendments next week.)

The 2.5% figure is similarly arbitrary — it doesn’t seem any analysis was done to show why 2.5% is a more desirable figure that, say, 2% or 3% or even higher.

These type of arbitrary financial decisions — made to fit an ideology that just believes government should be smaller and do less, full stop —  do seem a bit radical. Or, at the very least, kind of radically dumb.

But on the other hand, this is kind of a milquetoast budget. It contains a series of compromises and half-measures to the point where it looks little like the kind of city budget Rob Ford would have approved of when he was a councillor. Perennial Ford targets seem mostly untouched. And every indication that even more cuts will be reversed at council.

There’s no doubt that Ford and his team had their sights set on a budget more radical than the one we ended up with. If the intent was radical conservative budgeting, the outcome isn’t.

Quick Hits: Budget Edition

Library Must Cut More: The big news coming out of the budget committee yesterday was a further request that the library committee cut another $7 million from their operating budget in order to meet the arbitrary 10% target. It’s worth noting that several other departments and boards failed to meet the 10% target but only the library has been asked to go back and cut more. The decision came after a weird speech from the Budget Chief in which he expressed the view that some libraries may be duplicating the services provided by schools and community centres and so there’s room for cuts. Okay.

Ford’s Arts Cuts Will Hurt: Quick Quiz! Guess which councillor said this: “If the cuts go through, things could go into a tailspin.” It was Ford-ally Gary Crawford, who has been a pretty steadfast supporter of the mayor’s agenda thus far. The arts cuts in this budget — like a lot of things — are kind of stealth cuts, as they’re hidden in general 10% reductions to various budgets. In any case, any cuts to the arts fly in the face of the Creative Capital Gains report council unanimously endorsed this spring.

Ford The Program Saver: As Ford has backed off some of the cuts he presented with the budget in November, he’s developed a strategy in which he points to city staff as the ones who wanted cuts to things like nutrition programs. With this narrative, Ford becomes the guy who “saved” these programs from the budget axe. Councillor Josh Matlow summed the whole thing up pretty well, when he tweeted this:

In a missive to his supporters today, Mayor Rob Ford essentially announced that he's protected taxpayers from Mayor Rob Ford's budget cuts.
@JoshMatlow
Josh Matlow

Credit Where Credit Is Due: In his weekly Facebook update, Ford also took some credit for the city’s mounting surplus. In his weekly Facebook message, he wrote, “much of the surplus is a direct result of smart management, as City staff implemented millions of dollars in efficiencies this year.” Which is a true statement, I guess, as long as you indicate that the smart management must have emerged way back in the David Miler era. The city has enjoyed big surpluses for years and Ford’s 2011 budget — which essentially held the line on David Miller’s 2010 budget — didn’t do anything that would directly lead to this year’s surplus.

Cuts On The Table: For those looking to make sense of what’s being cut and what’s been saved, the Toronto Star’s Paul Moloney has a great rundown.

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